Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 21 February 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Is India there or not?

Is Sri Lanka located adjacent to the Indian sub-continent or, not? The way some Sri Lankans seem to see their physical surroundings, our little island is either adjacent to Singapore (or, China) or, next door to Europe. Visit a fine dining restaurant and ask for 'Continental' fare and you will be offered European cuisine not Indian or other cuisine of the sub-continent to which we are geographically adjacent.

Some Sri Lankans fly all the way to the Alps or further west to experience snow and winter sports instead of hopping cheaply across to Delhi with access to scores of ski stations in the spectacular Himalayas. And are the biggest castles in Europe, the UK or, just across the Palk Strait? And, why fly all the way to West Asia - sorry, the 'Middle' East - to see the desert when the mighty Thar, complete with camel farms and desert kingdoms, is much closer with cheaper access? There was a time when our Anglicised elite would sneer at 'Yindians', but not any more. Too many of our middle elite have now studied in world-class Indian universities and colleges and mixed with the parallel Indian westernised elite and heard the same type of Ox-Bridge elocution as we strive at here.

It is that sneer that reveals the jaundiced nature of our perception of the Sub-Continent. On the one hand there is, possibly, a sense of inadequacy on our part that needs to be compensated by (hopelessly) attempting one-upmanship versus our giant neighbour.

Thus, we seek some empty reassurance that we are not part of this ('poor', 'dirty') South Asian region but are, instead, more related to either East Asia or 'the West'. We indulge in assuming a cultural separateness and, distance, from the very parent culture from which we derive the bulk of our social-psychological mindset and cultural roots.

On the other hand, some of our intelligentsia adopt a simplistic theory of pure competition as if all the current nation-states in the world today - nearly 200 at the latest count - are discrete entities that can, then, proceed to compete with each other economically and socially as if in some game or sport.

There is a presumption that one can invent economic and social pathways independent of geographical, economic and cultural affinities that are inherent in our material contexts irrespective of what we think. Thus, many Sri Lankans live in a social and political ethos in which we may sneak across to Chennai to buy the best sarees and, cautiously, go further north to worship in Buddha Gaya but, we suffer some sort of knee-jerk reaction to inter-state dealings for systematic economic and technical collaboration with our giant neighbour who, luckily for us, happens to be the fastest growing industrial economy in the world today.

First, there was the uproar against the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord under which the regionally most powerful state, fortunately our immediate neighbour, rushed in its own troops to help counter twin insurgencies faced by the Sri Lankan State at the time. Indian soldiers died in directly defending the Sri Lankan State against the northern secessionist insurgency and this support enabled Sri Jayawardenepura to deploy more of its military resources southwards to crush - quite brutally - the parallel southern insurgency.

Now, there is an uproar over the ETCA.

Any business outlook that is pragmatically market-based and not theory-based will acknowledge the benefits of linking up with a neighbouring, cheaply accessible, market that thrives on the advantages of economies of scale. China also thrives on this same advantage but China is not at our doorstep. 'Value chains' must take advantage of geographical proximity and cheaper logistics. Those numbers count in measuring margins.

Certainly, China may continue to be our biggest investor (and, currently, our biggest creditor). But why lose even an iota of advantage that we can also gain by close ties with our neighbouring Sub-Continent?

Our national strategic approach should be one where we seek advantages and benefits from different types of bilateral and multilateral inter-state relations, with some relationships benefitting from geographical proximity while other relationships gain from other advantages such as specific technological and industrial capacities and greater availability of entrepreneurial capital and credit.

The Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) being negotiated with India seeks to do just that. After all, while China may currently be the biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), the Sub-Continent is currently the biggest destination of Sri Lankan capital investment - both in India and Bangladesh.

Just as much as the Government takes the lead in the inter-governmental negotiations over ETCA, it is up to the business and professional sectors to help the government design the intended Indo-Lanka 'deal' to comprehensively address all aspects and nuances of the transactions across the Palk Strait so that all our interests are reasonably protected.

It is not so much as to 'whether' we deal with India - and the Sub-Continent - but as to how we deal and what we can get out of it.


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